South Korean protestors hold placards showing a caricature of US President Donald Trump during an anti-US rally to condemn Trump, outside a US Army base in Seoul on August 14, 2017. Photo: AFP: Jung Yeon-Je

A work of art can have a powerful effect on the morals, ethics, thinking, and emotions of its audience. Not just an actor or actress, but artists in every domain have the critical power to creatively change a person, or a group of people, causing them to think differently.

We in the 21st century understand emotion, encompassing joy, laughter, tears, comedy and tragedy, love and hate. However, the most effective way an artist brings about deep change is by entertaining the population. The artwork comes first and then the entertainment. Not vice versa.

The artist can be in any domain. Donald Trump is not the first US president to draw critical attention — to the point of obsession — of a wide array of entertainers, artists, celebrities, and others. The strategy is to fascinate, regale, divert and distract the general population, considered by these “poets” to be an audience in need of amusement. (Trump had a brief cameo as a tourist in the movie Home Alone 2. Then he developed his TV show The Apprentice.)

Effective political art, produced by passionate artists, exists. Some of it may be hallmarked fairly as works of high merit, glowing with the inner light (the spirit and soul) of the person represented.

Art helps clarify uncomfortable truths

Abraham Lincoln comes to life in Walt Whitman’s two elegiac poems “Oh Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Napoleon Crossing the Alps preserves the soul of a daring, transcendent general so well that the fact of his temporary exile on the island of Elba is momentarily eclipsed. Caesar’s character was never made so clear as when William Shakespeare explained it to us.

Consider Ludwig van Beethoven’s creative relationship to Napoleon Bonaparte. The composer at first titled his third symphony “Buonaparte.” Napoleon then was first consul of France but soon named himself emperor. Beethoven denounced the move, labeling Bonaparte a tyrant who will “tread underfoot all the rights of man.” The furious composer tore the original title page in half, and renamed the music the “Heroic Symphony.”

With Shakespeare, any number of his protagonists are larger and truer than any real-world example. His virtual men are perfect models for indecision, maddened by jealousy, abandoned by faithless children, etc.

The artworks themselves are the most important thing to an audience. A real poet or a true artist is touched by the gods (Plato). His “creatures” are ideals, perfected human types, truer to the human truth than are any earthly type. The playwright’s portrait of a failed salesman who is no longer favored is far more memorable to the audience than a real salesman.

Today’s young people, who are the audience for ‘artists’ who trivialize, libel and demean the US president, misunderstand the true function of public art

When the entertainment comes first, a momentary fame follows. When Stormy Daniels sleeps with Donald Trump she only entertains. The “fake” poet/artists who daily denigrate and lampoon President Trump — comedians, porn-star entertainers, defeated politicians and ill-informed celebrities — are not the equal of Arthur Miller, Beethoven or Shakespeare.

Today’s young people, who are the audience for “artists” who trivialize, libel and demean the US president, misunderstand the true function of public art. This is not to deny to certain artists the right to criticize the president. We only mean that young persons should demand that real artists have skill enough to bring to virtual life replicas of persons, ideas, and complexities of human nature that instruct, inform, and enlighten the audience.

Artists who don’t meet that standard cannot play the long game and are unwelcome.

Two kinds of famous people operate in today’s media.

Persons who have fame without the art. Like the porn actress Stormy Daniels they hope for enhanced notoriety/celebrity/identity but have no independent “poems” (pre-existing accomplishments) that have the “life force” of art.

Persons who have artwork with the fame. And so, the rapper and the female TV star who frequently and enthusiastically express their support and admiration for the president are reasonably suspected of wishing to influence the audience.

David Hume was among Scottish Enlightenment philosophers who argued that art in politics, moral instruction, and understanding is a product of our passions, what we today call emotion in contrast to scientific logic.

Hume famously said: “You cannot convince me by logic that I should suffer even a scratch on my finger in order to benefit some other person.” He doesn’t mean there is no support for ethics or morality, nor is there a proscription for bad behavior. He means that our common rules for propriety and interpersonal respect come from the heart and not the head.

And so, the artist is better suited than the logician, engineer, or scientist to act as instructor, interpreter, and proscriber for persons in need of moral guidance.

A primer for human behavior

Morals are taught by tradition and carefully communicated by examples set by noble, dignified persons of merit and virtue. Human actions are known to be correct to the extent they satisfy our esthetic, spiritual and even religious instincts. Philosopher Leo Strauss tells us that “revelation” communicated from the gods instructs us how to behave toward one another.

Thus “artist” is a job with great responsibility. Artists have the power to personify and give allegorical, emblematic human form to ideal types of mysteriously human public morality.

Working on and from the heart, the artistic product has a dynamism that gives rise to respectful individuality, wise governance, and well-protected political liberty.

A high type of artist is better suited to the task than are scientists and logicians. The latter are too willing to treat human beings as programmable robots, whose settings only need to be tweaked by utopia-seeking social designers.

Truly civilized members of an audience sharing an instructive experience together with authorizing artist/savants operate in a world above reason.

Tom Velk and Jade Xiao

Tom Velk is a libertarian-leaning American economist who teaches and lives in Montreal, Canada. He is the chairman of the North American studies program at McGill University and a professor in that university's economics department. Jade Xiao is a McGill University graduate.